“Becoming a Thread and a Needle” – Aiko Tezuka’s thought and method

Sachiko Shoji, Curator, Fukuoka Art Museum
September 2019

Weaving the Past and the Present
As a student, Aiko Tezuka came to focus on textiles in the quest for a new painterly language and developed her own method of deconstructing and reconstructing the pre-existing notion of painting. Initially, her unique method may have been the mere outgrowth of the process to analogize weaving warps and wefts to paintings, as the former interlaces an array of patterns, while the latter consists of layers of paint, somewhat analogously. However, as it turned out, by unraveling the yarns, not only did it mean tracing back the time that it took to weave, thereby looking at the physical structure, but also examining the institutions, society and history that shaped the fabric. In other words, the act of unraveling, i.e., pulling threads out of a ‘ready-made’ textile, and reconstructing it by embroidering with the pulled out threads can be seen as an attempt to weave the past and the present, a particular moment that flows then and there, entwine them, and visually and tactilely convey the entire process to the viewer.

For example, in the series Certainty / Entropy exhibited in 2014, Tezuka used a textile designed by herself, which was woven by a technician in the lab in the Textile Museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands. In the background, traditional textiles and decorative patterns made in the 20th-century Peranakan (present-day Singapore), the 18th-century India, the 16th-century England, and the 8th-century Japan are referenced, and symbols familiar to the modern audience are also sprinkled across those layers. The traditional textile patterns, now labeled as “decorative”, and the symbols that flood our modern society are intended to indicate memories and a variety of human emotions, such as desires, aspirations, reminiscences, and the relentless pursuit of power. The fabric that encapsulates chaos is disentwined by Tezuka’s hand, and the patterns and symbols are dissolved and returned to the original state of yarns.

In the work Do you remember me – I was about to forget unveiled in 2018, a Japanese figure who moved to Hawaii and settled in a sugar plantation there during the Meiji era was machine-embroidered on soft organdy, which allows light to gently percolate through. By Western colonizers, many parts of Hawaii were turned into plantations, and a large number of Asians including Japanese immigrated to Hawaii in search of a new land to work and prosper. They intended to return home once they made money, but in reality, they were forced to work under harsh conditions as cheap labor, and thus they were never able to leave the land. Intended to be displayed on a glass window, this work oscillates between memories and oblivion, while the scenery of its surroundings, a Hawaiian landscape and the figure of the Japanese immigrant ambivalently overlap, spreading boundlessly underneath the surface of a thin laced cloth.

One of Tezuka’s new works shown for the first time in this exhibition, Flowery Obscurity (The Night Watch), refers to the masterpiece The Night Watch by 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. Although the title The Night Watch, which the painting is widely known as today, is, in truth, an eponym of the less known fact that by the time it was titled as such, the painting had been darkened by layers of dirt and varnish, even though the painting did not originally depict a night scene. Nonetheless, the immense painting by the Dutch master reveals the delicate depiction of light and darkness that have enthralled viewers over centuries. Meanwhile, in Tezuka’s Flowery Obscurity (The Night Watch), parts of the image of The Night Watch, where Photoshop (image editing software) mechanically perceived as black, i.e., darkish, have been replaced with the exotic floral patterns that appear on Indian “Sarasa” textiles.

Also, if a viewer follows the floral patterns, the logo of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie: VOC) can be found. Around the time that The Night Watch was painted, the Asian trade was monopolized by VOC, and Indian textiles manufactured in the Coromandel Coast region, southeastern India, were particularly popular among Europeans. For this reason, VOC has contracted with the regional lords and local textile craftsmen in order to produce a lot of Indian Sarasa. The Indian Sarasa crossed the oceans as popular trading items during the age of the Great Voyages and was loved by Indonesians, the French, the British, the Dutch, and Japanese.

There is a curious dualism between the old master that had left an indelible mark in the history of art and the dyed textiles that were then excluded from the context of art, even though the latter, in fact, enchanted many people and played an essential part in the world economy at that time. This work, referring to the time in which paintings and dyed fabrics co-existed, albeit in parallel, was also designed by Tezuka and woven at the Textile Museum Lab in Tilburg.


Modernism and Japan
Tezuka has consciously used prefabricated textiles in the context of contemporary art, whereby she has investigated the relationships between art and craft, industrialization and industry, and fine art and decorative art. Textiles and paintings are both forms of human expressions that require tremendous time and effort to produce. Within various patterns created there, common threads are found, which mesmerize and enlighten viewers, but, at that same time, ostentatiously display the power of rulers. Similarly, in a case where textiles were used as clothes in daily life, the same can be said, as clothing bore heterogeneous functions and meanings. And in Japan, it was during the Meiji period when art and crafts parted their ways and began to be treated differently, which coincided with the time when the concept of “fine art” was imported from the West.

In the meantime, the year before entering the Meiji era, from Japan, the Edo Shogunate, the Satsuma domain, and the Saga domain were exhibiting at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. Allegedly, it was the Satsuma buttons (ref.1) submitted proudly by the Satsuma domain that attracted much attention of Western visitors. The gorgeous ceramic buttons with the diameter of just a few centimeters are swathed in beautifully rendered Japanese landscapes and women in kimonos exquisitely painted on precious white Satsuma clay. In the light of the ‘Japonism’ boom spreading across its export destinations in the West, the traditional Japanese image that Western Europeans expected was consciously conveyed and fabricated. At that time, buttons were rather redundant embellishments for kimonos in Japan. The Satsuma buttons illustrate the way in which Japan consciously played self-orientalism to satisfy the expectation of Western Europeans, and simultaneously, it underlines the recentness of the situation where Modern Japan had only come in contact with Western Europe not long ago.

Tezuka’s new work A Study of Necessity (Satsuma-Buttons and Self-Orientalism) is a textile designed by the artist with reference to the oldest known example of embroidery in Japan made during the Asuka period, namely the Tenjukoku Shūchō Mandala, appearing in the background, which was also referenced in her previous works, such as Thin Membrane, Pictures Come Down (2009) and Ghost I Met (2013). On top of that, the Satsuma button is visible from between the ridges of the Suigetsu (Water-Moon) Kannon half-stone statue. The images of objects spanning several centuries, such as 7th-century embroidery fabrics, 13th-century statues, and 19th-century ornaments exported to Western Europe, were carefully edited into a multi-layered image. After then, the design data was converted into a format for the use of weaving machines. Together with the technician, Tezuka attentively compared the image pixels with threads one by one, adjusting the image to be rendered on the fabric, before it was finally woven. In this work, the Satsuma-button has been starkly contrasted with the formal sensibility of Europeans. From gaps created between the walls of the drapes of Italian marble statues, the original 18th and 19th-century European buttons appear, which Japanese craftsmen must have closely studied when producing the Satsuma buttons.


Meeting Again and Weaving Again
The production of her new works presented in this exhibition has been sponsored by the Kyoto Costume Institute (KCI), an incorporated research institute, founded by Wacoal Co., Ltd. Her solo exhibition will concurrently take place at a venue in Japan called Spiral, which is also a subsidiary of Wacoal Co., Ltd. Within the collection inventory provided by KCI, Tezuka paid particular heed to a piece of fabric that had just been acquired. It is a tablecloth that is believed to be woven around 1905-1925 by Kawashima Textile (present Kawashima Selkon Textiles), a well-established textile company based in Kyoto. There are two main reasons why Tezuka was drawn to this fabric. First, this piece was woven in the Meiji period. And Kawashima Selkon Textiles was the company that Tezuka sought cooperation from for producing the 2008 work Loom of Layers, Picture of Layers – Sewn Together (held in Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Collection) and the 2013 work Ghost I Met.

Kawashima Textile was founded by Kawashima Jinbei I in 1843 in the late Edo period, operating initially as a kimono dealer and providing various kinds of kimono-related services. The business was further developed by Kawashima Jinbei II, the eldest son of Kawashima Jinbei I. Jinbei II conducted extensive research into Gobelin tapestries during his visit to Europe in 1886, which subsequently allowed him to improve Japanese textile production methods and make a significant contribution in the advancement of techniques in hand-woven brocade. In the following year, he received the special order to design inside the Imperial Palace and completed the interior decoration of the Meiji Palace in 1888. It was probably the first interior design and upholstery project carried out on such a large scale in Japan.

Although it is not clear as to the details of the tablecloth held in the KCI collection, the piece is assumed to be produced in the early 1900s, based analogously on the exhibition record of the same kind of tablecloths exhibited at the World Expo. While tablecloths were introduced to Japan together with table manners as a part of various Westernization policies, Jinbei II began producing and presenting a set of fabrics made exclusively for interior decoration purposes including tablecloths from the 1900 Paris World Expo onwards. In addition to that, the previously conducted research has pointed out that Kawashima Jinbei II focused on the interior decoration textiles specifically for international exhibitions such as the World Expo in order to show the world technical prowess and minuteness of Japanese craftsmanship and his company in large-size interior textiles, which were difficult be seen in relatively small kimono fabrics.

A tablecloth made over 100 years ago by Kawashima Textile, a well-established Kyoto-based company, has been acquired by KCI, a clothing research institute in Kyoto, and coincidentally, Tezuka was preparing her new works around the same time, which were to be presented in her upcoming solo exhibition at Spiral founded by Wacoal, also based in Kyoto. Tezuka requested Kawashima Selkon Textiles the remaking of the tablecloth. It was meant to be the reunion of different technologies that were developed centuries apart, namely hand weaving and machine weaving. Thanks to the miraculous encounter brought about by Tezuka, the work Rewoven in Kyoto, After 100 years, which has been reproduced almost in full size, is a conceptual art piece that reflects back upon the state of art and craft in Japan during the Meiji period, which encompassed technological innovation of art and craft on one hand and the dualistic attitude towards Western Europe on the other.


Front and back, toing and froing
In 1869, Japan finally ended over 200 years of self-imposed seclusion. In order to show that Japan was equal to its Western counterparts that were, at that time, the center of the world, the Meiji government adopted various Westernization policies, lending itself to the values of Western Europe. In order not to be treated as inferior or to be colonized, rapid Westernization was carried out with utmost urgency, which included reforming the system of government and abandoning traditional fashion and customs. For example, following the Western custom, from 1872 onwards, Empress Shōken (Haruko) (ref.2) also attended ceremonies and official meetings with key figures from Western countries that the Emperor had previously appeared alone. In addition, clothing was viewed as an extension of international politics, aiming at presenting Japan as a prominent and advanced civilization comparable to the powerful European countries.

In 1873, the emperor shortened his hair and began to wear a Western-style military uniform as formal clothing. In the Imperial Court, aristocratic women had traditionally worn a casual version of twelve-layered ceremonial kimono, which had long been worn by courtiers. However, on June 23, 1886, 10 years after the change of men’s formal dress code, Minister of the Imperial Household then Hirobumi Itō notified the royal family, ministers and others of women’s new formal dress code. On July 28 of the same year, the Empress wore Western clothes, and two days later, she presented herself in Western clothes in the public for the first time. On January 17, 1887, the Empress sent out her ‘declaration statement’ to the Cabinet Ministerial Secretary, Secretary of State and Han Chinese, promoting Western clothes for ladies.

Contrary to the Emperor who persistently opposed the Westernization of women’s clothes, the Empress’ stance was characterized as her alleged remark, “for my country, I would do anything”, presenting herself as a new type of empress who was modern, progressive and flexible in the light of the rapid and radical socio-political transformation taking place in Japan then. By 1883, as part of the Europeanization policy, the Rokumei-kan Pavilion had already been completed, which provided the primary location for foreign state guests and diplomats to engage in international diplomacy, and by then, Western-style clothing had in part already been adopted by the many, which later came to be called the “Rokumei-kan style”. However, nothing had more influence on Japanese society than the appearance of the Empress being wrapped in Western clothes. The most well-known Empress Shōken’s clothes are probably the court dress / Manteau de Cour (currently held in Kyoritsu Women’s University Museum Collection) (ref.3), which is said to have been worn on the occasion of the New Year Morning Greeting in the late Meiji period. Allegedly, only domestic materials and techniques are used for the fabric, where large, medium and small chrysanthemums are finely embroidered on deep green velvet fabric. It seems also to testify the Empress’ quiet yet endearing wish to preserve elements of the diminishing Japanese culture in the midst of rapid and extensive Westernization.

Empress Shōken was a unique individual who actively embraced change with strong conviction and self-belief despite being at the mercy of the time. Empathizing with the situation in which the Empress was placed in relation to the Westernization of women’s clothing in Modern Japan, Tezuka attentively took apart the design of the court dress and redesigned it with the two pieces of Tanka poems composed by the Empress soon after the Westernization of women’s dresses at the Imperial Court.  Later, the design was materialized into the magnificent fabric at the Textile Museum Lab in Tilburg and has been titled Dear Oblivion (A Study of Empress Haruko). The Tanka poems read:


“As the exchange with foreign cultures frequents,
a sense of urgency not to lag behind them grows.”
(As diplomatic relations with foreign countries deepen, a sense of urgency to not lag behind them and to catch up with them intensifies.)


“Water becomes the form of a vessel,
as it conforms to its shape.”
(Depending on the shapes of containers, the shape of water alters capriciously.)


What was it like inside the mind of the Empress at that time?
Although the two pieces of Tanka do not necessarily refer directly to the Europeanization policies or the Westernization of clothing, they, nonetheless, convey the senses of hesitation, anxiety, and uneasiness that she must have experienced then.


Aiko Tezuka’s method

Over the years, Tezuka’s artworks have captivated viewers, which transform prefabricated textiles into dynamic installations by painstakingly pulling out threads from them one by one by hand. Tezuka examines Modern art and Modernity itself and poses questions both elegantly and craftily by using a technique that is positioned as craft-like and decorative in the realm of art where the aforementioned hierarchy still persists.

In her new works produced for this exhibition, the trajectories of her handwork that characterized her previous work, such as unraveling textile threads and embroidering, the hallmark of Tezuka’s artistic lexicon, are not necessarily discernible to an extensive degree. However, when designing the textiles, Tezuka experienced, as she recounted, “the feeling of myself becoming a thread and a needle”. It can be said that the thickness of the newly woven fabric on this occasion encompasses patterns, textures, and layering that have been carefully chosen by her in collaboration with the textile technician with utmost care, attentiveness and thoughtfulness, and during the course of her creative and investigative endeavor, each and every thread woven into the fabric has embodied Tezuka’s thought on deconstructing, re-examining and reconstructing relationships between Japan and Western Europe, Modern and Contemporary, i.e., the present, and art and craft, which may have begun even before the fabric was physically liberated.
Tezuka named the title of this exhibition “Dear Oblivion”. When we look back on the past we tend to simply trace our retrievable memories. However, memories and oblivion are like two sides of the same coin, and there is always something forgotten behind retrievable memories. Hence, the word reflects Tezuka’s sincere aspiration to cast our attention on not only the traces of the past that are accessible but also unobtrusive moments that have long descended into oblivion. Untold stories that have been fallen into oblivion are sometimes painful. There is both unintended and intended reduction of certain events to obscurity. While recalling one’s memories and looking back at history, one may notice moments and events lost into oblivion. In such instances, instead of glorifying and idealizing them upon recollecting, it is vital to re-examine the situations, in which the events occurred, critically reflect on them, and share the process of the exploration with the wider public.



Translated by Masaki Yada